How Having Clear Priorities Lessens Overwhelm

Putting it simply, you won’t be able to function at your best if you ‘re not able to manage your stress. And to to do that effectively  you need to get to the root cause of of your particular stress points, which is different for everyone. Stress is endemic in today’s world, and while businesses, organizations, and governments are focused on addressing it due to the massive negative effects it has on worker and citizen’s mental and physical health, productivity, and quality of life, it is up to us on an individual level to actually make the moves and take specific actions  so we can go and live the best life we can — or at the very least hurt a lot less while doing so.

This certainly applies to anyone who have ever gone and created and run a business of their own. The internet has given us a whole virtual frontier of opportunities to become entrepreneurs, and in itself also is an incredibly fast-paced and competitive environment where we have to be agile and responsive if we’re ever to make it. And that’s stressful.

Now, one of the biggest contributors  to the feeling of overwhelm and stress is the lack of clarity about priorities. Whether working for ourselves, with, or for others, the  waves of conflicting demands that come in the form of emails, phone-calls, personal requests, requisitions, orders, instant messages, and our own personal To-Do lists make for a formidable forest of ‘open items’ to accomplish, a forest that we very easily get lost and bogged down in.

The error comes in assuming you can juggle your top priorities.  That’s what all the productivity gurus and books have been saying for the last decade — make a list, arrange in order of priorities, and there you go. And yet hundreds– if not thousands –of new titles on productivity and ‘Getting Things Done’ are still published every year. People still have trouble getting their priorities in order because admittedly, we get so many demands on our time it’s hard to keep a steady eye and a clear head in all of the details.

Taking it from the root word in Latin, ‘prior‘ means ‘before’. A prior engagement, for example, may be the reason why you’re late to a party– something that happened before the party started held you up.

When you commit by your actions you make priority mean, ‘to come ahead of. You attend to the items on your lists in an order that put the items with the most impact (in your day or over time) first, ahead of anything else — rather than jamming  your list full of stuff and hoping that you get to tick at least 50% of them off before the day is through.

  • Having priorities means you have things you need to attend to.
  • Having your priorities in order means you know what to put first, and what follows after.
  • Sticking to the order of ‘what follows after’ helps you make the most out of your time and energy.
  • Actionable items hang from your clear priorities — if you accomplish your important things things first,  the rest of the list would be icing on the cake.


When worlds collide.
Conflicts happen when you go up against other people’s priorities which aren’t aligned with your own. Depending on your relationship with these people, you can negotiate. You can reach an agreement as to whose priority gets attention (including how much of your time and attention you will contribute) or you attend to the other’ person’s needs in that situation because it’s more important to you to see that they get what they need. (This is especially rings true when you have dependents.) You need to know what it important to you so you know what to put first. Aligning everything else — planning, activities, time budget and financial budget, etc– to those important things,  helps you smooth the way and alleviate the stress.

Roots of the troubles:
Conflict In Ownership
The concept of ‘lean and mean’ business structures has contributed to the idea of using as few people and resources possible to run a business. While the image looks and sound tough and admirable in the context of competitiveness and agility, lean and mean can also be interpreted as having no slack to afford rest, and forces  the people in the business to do  more and more things, being people-of-all-trades, and fracturing their time and attention. Often it means doing the work of two, three, or more people — and honestly, even though that’s silently expected, even admired, in a workaholic culture, it’s unhealthy, unsustainable, and can actually kill ( look up karoshi.)

A sustainable workload means you can go the distance. You work within healthy boundaries. Taking on issues, items, and responsibilities that aren’t actually yours makes you a dumping ground, and the stress will poison you just as much as toxic waste in a real dump does the ground underneath.

Conflict In Time

  • The important versus the urgent — obscured by the trivial, the dramatic, and the useless.
  • Scheduling too much, too close together. Take double- or even triple-booking, for example. The problem with setting one appointment on the heels of another is that if someone trips, everyone falls down. It’s the domino effect: it ripples out.


Conflict In Roles:
You have different areas in your life which matter to you, and in  these areas you play different roles: designer, friend,  department head, parent, entrepreneur, care-giver, spouse, podcaster, etc. Priorities clear in one area can conflict with others, and you have to make the call as to what gets done, and by extension, what doesn’t.

When an emergency pops out of the blue, the severity and urgency of the scenario can wipe your radar free of other issues, and  you focus on what is needed at that time, in that place, for the people involved to resolve the situation and get the help needed.

For example, the  ‘ABC’s of CPR‘ —  places things in a certain order when  doing cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. While in real life emergencies aren’t that commonplace, the same sense of clarity regarding priorities — what to do in, how to go about it, and when to hand it in on hand it over , or let go, is important.

How else this conflict manifests: Conflict in boundaries. Conflicting priorities and unclear priorities  Conflicting schedules and unclear schedules.

One thing to point out:  You will never finish that To-Do list in your head.
Never ever ever. Let go of that thought right now.
Things happen even after you finish a task. Either you go on to another or take a break, or closing on task means moving on to the next phase, or waiting for results, or for  something to happen so you can move onward.
You will never finish that To-Do list in your head. So focus on what matters the most to you and work on that. Everything else takes a back-seat — or if they don’t contribute anything positive to you life, let go of those entirely, and travel lighter.

Points of focus to help you on the way:

  • Think of Today’s Tasks as a group of open loops. You close the loops  now so you won’t  cause snags later.
  • Some loops are more important than others. See to them first, because they can cause bigger snags if you don’t, or even unravel and affect a greater area.
  • If a loop is a repetitive, necessary action, say, a daily or weekly report or whatever, you  make a good routine.
  • You close a loop, you leave things arranged neatly for the next time you prepare to address  the same or similar model open loop again.
    Automation, neatness, ‘mise en place‘ where everything is prepped for you to go to work immediately — all these things help lighten the load. More easy to carry = Less stress.

Supporting actions that keep you on-track and stable:

  • No time to rehydrate? Dehydration causes headaches. How will you be able to focus if you ignore your body’s need for water?
  • No time to think? What kind of decisions will you make then?
  • No time to stretch and rest? Go back to work-load: you have to let go so you can rest and pick it up later without accidents.
  • You have a body– take care of it because it’s what lets do what you do. You need blocks of time to shake off the fuzz and collect yourself, rest, decompress, and recover. Take that time.


It’s not that you’re lazy or simply disorganized– although, yes, being disorganized can contribute. It’s that when you try to to everything, you are probably doing too much. Human limits, even aided by automation and technologies, are still there. You work yourself down, you will pay for neglecting your human limits, now, and  further down the road.

Even in tough economic times, we still range from people who work to live and people who live to work. And so we have differing measurements for personal success. Whatever you  choose to do, if you live and act in accordance with your clear priorities, things tend to fall into place when that happens. You’re more engaged in the work you do because the way you do it aligns with what is important to you. Finding and weeding out the things that are not in line with what matters vitally to you helps remove the stress points that can keep you from living the life you live, and doing your business in a way that gets you to live that live you work for joyfully, and with less wear and tear.

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